Throughout the ages, technology has been seen by some as a saviour and by others as something to be feared. We can all think of key technological inventions that have had a significant impact on the way a business is run, such as the humble pocket calculator and fax machine, and which in their day revolutionised business processes. Nowadays the impact of information technology on the business environment is so widespread that it encompasses every aspect of the day to day running of a modern business. However, like everything in business, for IT to help give you the edge over the competition, its use needs to be integrated within your overall business strategy, rather than being just tools used because they are available and your IT supplier offers them to you.
So how do you ensure that you make the most of the valuable resources available in today’s hi-tech, IT-rich world, and in doing so give your business an advantage over your competitors?
Not surprisingly, instigating a good IT strategy within the business should follow the same process as all other well-planned activity. However, too often we find that IT has grown haphazardly within a business, with no understanding as to whether the technology introduced has given a solid return on investment.
Our starting point is to not assume that just because you personally are a bit of a computer whiz that those skills will get you through as you buy the latest hardware, load the software. Of course IT is much more than just a computer and some software. When running business building workshops we often refer to what we believe are the fundamental building blocks of any business which are illustrated as follows.
We are sometimes asked why we haven’t included a function block for IT, as it’s such a critical aspect of modern business. Whilst we can see the logic in this question and accept that a lot of large organisations will have a dedicated IT manager and associated team, we recognise that IT is an enabler in the business process and must be implemented so that it serves the business, rather than the other way around. Too often we see businesses where people have forgotten that their IT equipment is a resource that should deliver solutions, rather than a collection of kit and ‘techies’ who tell the business what it should be doing. We might use the technical analogy of ‘tail wagging the dog’ here!
So here are some key things to think about when setting an IT strategy.
- The first one is in the heading – make sure you think of IT as something that deserves a strategy and put one in place, monitored by regular reviews.
- Define the deliverables for each functional area and identify whether the IT employed is just something that will be used internally or is a central part of the customer facing process.
- Map the flow of information within each functional area and identify the criticality of that information to the business. If the business also involves the physical flow of product then make sure you map the information flow relative to the material flows.
- Within the information flow, identify any key bottlenecks.
- Identify the sensitivity of information within the flow and define who can or should have access to it.
Creating a value stream map of your business process would be a great way of achieving these steps
As you carry out the steps above, try to detach yourself as much as possible from the current IT systems in place, so they don’t drive your analysis.
So now you‘ve defined your IT strategy and fundamental requirements, from a pure business need perspective, it’s time to start engaging with your IT supplier or (if you have one) internal IT manager. You may think it strange that if you have an internal IT manager they have not yet been part of the process. So think of what we’ve just done in terms of designing a commercial kitchen. Before a supplier can spec out a kitchen for you they have to know what your needs are. Yes, there are some standard building blocks but they need to be tailored to deliver the appropriate installation. For example if you were setting up a kitchen in a Chinese restaurant your cooking requirements would be very different to those in a pizza restaurant. The same applies to a Customer Relationship Management system where its features need to fit with the way your company interacts with current and potential clients.
Of course, at this stage, your supplier / IT manager will be able to help further define the strategy and bring their experience of similar projects to the table. Make sure they fully understand your strategy and the information flow. If they cannot and are not interested in fully understanding, and where appropriate questioning and giving input from similar projects, then they are not the right players to be working with.
From here it is just a case of following good project management practices to implement any new IT capability you’ve identified. Of course, it may be that you’ve identified all your requirements and concluded that your current systems are just what are needed. That’s fine, but ensure you set up a date for the next review and that you have some Key Performance Indicators in place to let you know your IT is functioning effectively.
There are of course some day to day requirements on any good IT supplier or manager, such as ensuring hardware is functioning correctly and providing a replacement or repairing within an agreed time window. It’s also imperative that if you have an external customer-facing interface that this is robust.
A couple of our other favourite key tips relating to IT that we could not omit are:
- Make sure you have a fully tested backup and recovery process – preferably cloud based.
- Treat a new piece of IT as any other new technology within your business, making sure your employees are given appropriate training and understand its purpose, so it‘s adopted and used as intended.
So, going back to the question of whether there should be a box for IT in the fundamental building blocks of a business. For us, the option is open, but remember that if you do split IT off as a separate function, it’s there to support you as the business owner, your team and your clients. So make sure it’s your vision, strategy and goals that they are working towards.